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Did fake news on Facebook swing the US election?

Its 1.7 billion users were treated to articles about how the Pope backs Trump and Clinton is dying. It's time to accept Facebook is a force in politics.

 

Did you know that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump? Admittedly, there are many reasons you might have missed this particular piece of information, not least the fact it’s not true. How about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly being sacked for supporting Hillary Clinton? Also false. Yet during the US election fake news spread so widely that even senior politicians regurgitated its main themes: “Go online and put down ‘Hillary Clinton illness’ and take a look at the videos yourself,” the Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani told Fox News in August. He was referring to a long-standing conspiracy theory that she was concealing a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

What drives these online rumour mills? Since the election, a large part of the blame has fallen on Facebook, where the Megyn Kelly rumour trended in August soon after the company sacked its human moderators and replaced them with an algorithm. Simply, fake news exists because it makes money. Between them, Facebook and Google control 64 per cent of the digital advertising market, and it’s possible to make a good living by running a parasitical Facebook page filled with content scraped from other websites. Strongly partisan political content is particularly well suited to this model. As the former Facebook product designer Bobby Goodlatte put it: “Sadly, [Facebook’s]News Feed optimises for engagement. As we’ve learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging.”

Trump (and, to a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders) has many fans who are convinced that the mainstream media are biased and corrupt. And, responding to these voters’ desire to read “what the MSM won’t tell you” – often because it wasn’t true – came a legion of chancers intent on making a quick buck. In one case uncovered by BuzzFeed, 100 pro-Trump pages were being run by teenagers in one town in Macedonia; in another example in the New York Times, a 35-year-old man from St Louis was making $22,000 a month by outsourcing content production to a couple in the Philippines.

I chased one source of the Pope news to a website called wtoe5news.com, which sells itself as “Your local news now”. The site itself was a hollow shell. Clicking on the “Weather” tab brought up a video headlined “Jay Pharoah Acts Out a Secret Meeting Between Black Comedians”; under “Community” was Ben Affleck looking sad. The whole site seemed to exist only to surround the Pope story with plausible architecture. Although let’s be realistic: among the 99,000 people who shared it on Facebook, how many clicked through to WTOE5, as opposed to just reading the headline and hitting “Share”? Tucked away on the About page was a disclaimer: “Most articles on wtoe5news.com are satire or pure fantasy.”

Facebook is trying to remove hoax and “satire” sites such as this one; recent changes to its news feed have downgraded them in favour of more established outlets. A more difficult case is something like the American Patriot page, which has more than 500,000 followers and has a grey verified tick, certifying that Facebook has “confirmed this is an authentic page for this business or organisation”. The Patriot’s stories skirt the edge of total bollocks, rather than being flat-out lies. “Christmas lights now banned as ‘security’ threat”, says one. “Everyone Noticed One Thing About Hillary’s Clothes During Her Concession Speech”, says another.

Facebook would argue that its verification mark is no reflection on the quality of stories, just that they are coming from the organisation named on the page. But it’s hard to see American Patriot as a news organisation in the way that the BBC is. Still, is it Facebook’s place to make editorial judgements like that? Mark Zuckerberg says no; he has always maintained that he runs a platform, not a publisher.

And there’s another problem. The sites peddling bullshit on Facebook are disproportionately right-wing. They are a extension of the alternative media – Fox News, talk radio, Breitbart – built by conservatives over two decades to redress what they saw as the liberal bias of the mainstream. If Facebook goes after fake news in a big way, it will disproportionately affect right-wing pages. And if you put that together with a site that is petrified about appearing biased (and has a prominent Trump supporter, ­Peter Thiel, on its board), what happens? A retreat into “objectivity” that actually benefits the right.

Some will say: why all this focus on Facebook when the mainstream media also publish misleading articles? The first reason is the site’s sheer size (1.7 billion users) and reach (44 per cent of us get our news there). Admittedly, the rest of the media are also irritated that Facebook is taking digital advertising dollars that might have replaced their own falling print revenues. They wouldn’t mind it being taken down a peg or two.

On Facebook, there is also far less visibility and accountability. When the Sun and the Mail published a false tale about Jeremy Corbyn “dancing a jig” on Remembrance Sunday, they were forced to remove the stories after an outcry. Crucially, enough people saw the fake news, and knew whom to complain to, for it to be taken down. That process is much harder on the sprawling, decentralised world of social networks.

Facebook is also where politics happens now. It is vital for fundraising – the Trump campaign said it was their single most important source of donations – and its built-in tools for advertisers allow endless A/B testing of messages to find the perfect one that resonates with voters. For those who wondered where Trump’s “ground game” was – his Get Out the Vote operation – there’s a simple answer: Facebook.

As for the Pope, two days before the election, he warned about fear, intolerance and “physical or social walls”. So probably not a huge Trump supporter, then.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

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Will Brexit be a success? Not if Football Manager is any guide

I played both the 2017 and 2018 versions of the game for thirty years after Brexit. The result was a grim future.

If England wins the World Cup, but the Premier League loses one of its Champions League places, has Brexit succeeded or failed? That’s the question that could define whether Brexit endures or is merely a one decade proposition, at least if Football Manager is any guide.

Two years ago, the popular football simulation made headlines after announcing they would incorporate a range of possible Brexit scenarios into their game. On 29 March 2019, players would be told what the outcome of the Brexit talks were, with major implications for how British football clubs conducted their transfer dealings. The options: an EEA-style Brexit, in which the United Kingdom maintained its membership of the single market and with it the free movement of people and the current frictionless trade with the continent, a Canada-style Brexit in which the United Kingdom leaves the single market with the concomitant repercussions for trade with the continent, and a no-deal scenario.

I have now played both the 2017 and 2018 versions of the game for a good thirty or so years after Brexit. In both cases, I experienced what is still far and away the most likely flavour of Brexit – a Canada-style arrangement with a reduced level of market access. (The one disappointingly unrealistic note is that this all takes place with no transition in March 2019.) And in both cases, I was still at the start of my managerial career, carving out a name for myself in the lower tiers of English football, with Oxford City and FC United of Manchester respectively. (I begin my games of Football Manager unemployed and take whatever job I can get.)

What both saves have immediately in common is that for the great mass of football clubs, there appears to be no real difference between life the day before, or after, Brexit. 

Oxford City mark the first full season after Brexit by achieving almost perfect equilibrium in League One – 15 victories, 16 draws and 15 losses –  while FC United are promoted from League Two at the first sign of asking. It doesn’t appear as if British football is going to be all that different outside of the EU.
But the summer proves otherwise. Signing players, already nightmarishly hard at Oxford City – my wage budget is punishingly low -  becomes more difficult, as I no longer have immediate and foolproof access to the European market.  My usual approach in the lower leagues is to buy young technically adept players from Scotland, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Ireland, and finance that by selling a player every summer.  Although FC United have a more competitive salary structure, they too struggle.

But as a net exporter of players, that’s all to the good. Other, bigger clubs respond to the unreliability of the European market by being more competitive for my players, and I successfully reinvest the proceeds, winning promotion to the Championship with both clubs in 2020-21

There, again, I find the football landscape much as I’d expect it: a series of financially over-extended clubs, all a bad run away from crisis, who are desperate for players with visas. This is double-edged: Oxford City are still a selling club, so the increasing cost of players is good for me. But unfortunately, not every one of my starlets can get the big move they want. On the eve of my third season in the Premier League – 2024-25 – a £97m deal for Ollie List, a buccaneering fullback I plucked from Fulham’s academy, falls through at the last minute, leaving me unable to buy several key targets and List thoroughly disgruntled.

The only way I stop List’s bad attitude bringing down the rest of my players is to bust open my wage structure to give him an eyewatering salary increase. He repays me by being the lynchpin of a defence that wins nine titles over the next decade, but he is symptomatic of a wider problem: I can’t sell on my players and I can’t easily buy replacements, so the only way to keep the show on the road is to pay higher salaries.

That dynamic seems to be playing itself out at other clubs up and down English football. My noisy neighbours, Oxford United, declare bankruptcy and are relegated three years in succession. As I celebrate Oxford City’s Premier League win in 2025-6, Derby County, Crystal Palace, Liverpool FC and Leeds United all find themselves in some kind of financial jeopardy, which is a good opportunity for me to buy some good players at a knockdown price, but again, on eyewatering wages. FC United’s first league title in 2024-5 similarly comes against a backdrop of clubs declaring bankruptcy.

To compensate for the lack of access to the European market, I turn my eyes further afield, signing players from Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia. I still face heavy visa restrictions, of course, and my Premier League rivals are in the same game. Ultimately, Brexit is good for increasing trade outside of Europe – but the increase in trade is not large enough to compensate for the loss of easy access to the European market.

While I am doing well myself in European competition, most English clubs are not. In a moment that triggers national soul-searching, the damage to our UEFA coefficient means that the Premier League loses one of its four Champions League places in 2032-33 in both saves with France the beneficiary in Football Manager 2017 and Italy the benefactors in Football Manager 2018. But in both cases, the English football team enjoys major success at the following international tournament (not, I should make clear, as a result of my involvement: I consider international football to be beneath me).

In both cases, the post-Brexit future is roughly in line with the bulk of economic forecasts: wages up, but prices up too. Trade with the world outside the EU up, but not by enough to compensate for the loss of trade with the continent. And crucially, underperformance relative to the rest of Europe.

So if Football Manager is any guide, expect Brexit to be a modest failure: and Axel Tuanzebe, the Manchester United centreback, to be a storming success.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.